Reading about director Simon McBurney’s impressive accomplishments, I’ve prepared myself for a breathtaking account of Arthur Miller’s All my sons on Broadway. In an interview on the Playbill, the leading actor, John Lithgow, says he was not tempted by this play until he was finally convinced – and I can tell you why. It is a devilish difficult play for actors – all characters are terribly ambivalent, the action developes too fast in order to adjust each character’s different facets and the level of tension increases steadily to the almost over-the-top closing scene. It is the sort of thing that even great actors can mess up, for this one of those texts that require a director’s thorough control of his actors – even if they are monstres sacrés who technically could do anything.
My first impression on the staging was really positive. Tom Pye’s set is simply brilliant – we are shown a large square lawn, some fences, a porch’s door surrounded by the naked backstage. The cast came forward, Lithgow explained that we were going to see Miller’s All my sons, read the first stage instruction and then the play began while the members of the cast visibly sat in the wings waiting for the entrances. The use of film projection is also very intelligent – and the sound effects are simply perfect.
However, a play has to be about the actors – and actors sometime simply are not in the mood. That happens – some nights, one really has to go the end of the play exclusively by technique, because the real feelings are not there. The curious phenomenon is that, this saturday, both leading actors in the cast seemed to be in that state of mind. For example, the usually excellent Dianne Wiest has her hallmark detached approach that could fit the role of Kate Keller, a housewife who grabs to a fantasy in order to survive the horrible truth about her family. The role requires a balance between almost fanatical energy and frailty – but Wiest remained distant and could not shift to the sheer violence of the close scene. John Lithgow is a most congenial actor and shows Joe Keller’s amiable outer personality to perfection, but the darker side beneath seemed unnatural, almost exaggerated – the comedy version of a tragedy.
In another expressive universe was Patrick Wilson – a theatre actor to the bones. Generally, leading men dislike those good-fellow parts, but Wilson brought such enthusiasm and energy to it that, in the end, when his character assumes an almost central role in the story, this comes through really naturally. I also believe that his influence on first-timer Katie Holmes was very positive. I disagree that she has no talent for the theatre – she has it only in a very incipient stage. First of all, she falls on the trap of underlining every word too strongly, stressing every coma in the text as if were playing the school-theatre version of Antigona. She has also a rather stiff attitude on stage, but her ability to boost dramatic tension in the closing scene took me by surprise. And that is indeed promising. Damian Young, Becky Ann Baker, Danielle Ferland and Jordan Gelber proved once again the motto that there are no small roles, but small actors.